An Incredible Life - Florence Blenkiron
Mike Forbes looks at the life of Florence Blenkiron who with her friend and fellow Brooklands Gold Star motorcycle racer Theresa Wallach travelled by motorbike and sidecar across Africa in the mid 1930s. This article was first published in two parts in the Brooklands Bulletin May/ Jun 2015 and Jul/ Aug 2015.
Florence Blenkiron was a most remarkable woman. Not only was she the first woman to gain a BMCRC Gold Star for exceeding 100mphfor a lap of the Brooklands Outer Circuit but, with Theresa Wallach rode a motorcycle and side-car from London to Cape Town in 1934-5. While her later story might not be so spectacular it nevertheless strengthens the claim that she was one of the great unsung heroines of her time.
Florence Margaret Charlotte Blenkiron was born in Harmby, North Yorkshire. According to the British Register Office her date of birth was in the second quarter of 1903 but subsequent censuses give her year of birth as 1904. Her father, John, was a grocer’s assistant according to the 1901 census but by 1911 was living at Walker House, Marrick, North Yorkshire, a substantial property estimated to be worth over £1-million pounds in2014. By this time he described himself as of ‘private means’. Probably the house had been in the Blenkiron family for some time as in 1890 it was reported to be occupied by a Mrs Jane Blenkiron. How a grocer’s assistant became ‘of private means’ and why each of his children were given three forenames when one or two would have been the norm is open to conjecture – several relatives were called Margaret so it appears to have been a family name.
Florence and Theresa on the FInishing Straight at Brooklands
The next we know about Florence is that she was on the secretarial staff of Sir Robert Hadfield, chairman of a Sheffield steel company, at his residence in London. This suggests she had some secretarial training – was this in Yorkshire or London? She became interested in motorcycles in her mid-teens. Florence’s name first appears in Brooklands archives on 30th September 1933, alongside the only other female entrant, Theresa Wallach, in a Junior All-Comers’ race (it was the first time that ‘entries may be accepted from Lady Members’). Neither lady finished but three weeks later Florence, on her 350cc AJS, led the field of 14 to win the first race in which women and men competed on equal terms. Florence and Teresa became good friends and entered track and trials events as well as touring on their bikes. Some of their entries were in tough events such as 24-hour trials and motorcycle football. At the BMCRC Clubman’s Day on 14th April1934 the three-lap All-Comers Outer Circuit race was split into two heats, the ladies in the first and the men in the second. As it was effectively a time-trial there was no final race. The ladies heat had only three entrants: 1. Miss F M Blenkiron, Grindlay Peerless 500cc (handwritten note in the programme in the Brooklands Museum library: ‘did not finish’). 2. C B Bicknell (Miss M Mooret) Aerial 500cc (obviously the winner!) 3. Miss T E Wallach, Douglas 500cc (‘did not start’). Florence was on ‘Victor Martin’s speedway JAP-engined Grindlay’ according to the race report, dried up on the far side of the Track” according to Roger Bird.
As this is the race in which Florence gained her Gold Star it must have been on lap two. Barry Jones (who edited the second edition of Theresa Wallach’s book) suggests that Florence did not bother to complete the third lap as she knew she had broken the magic 100mph lap. However, how could she have known this? It can reasonably be assumed that, having broken the record on lap two at 102.06mph, she was in the lead at the start of lap three and would surely want to continue in order to win the race but ran out of fuel (Mooret won at an average 90.88mph). Florence’s Grindlay-Peerless was probably the ex-Bill Lacey machine fitted with the 500cc JAP dirt-track engine prepared by Eric Fernihough. The entry sheet states that Florence had entered the aforementioned race on her 350cc AJS whereas according to the programme she had entered this smaller machine in the three-lap All-Comers Outer Circuit race later that day – she was not in the first four finishers. Theresa Wallach eventually achieved her Gold Star ( the third and last to be won by a woman ) in 1939 on a 350ccFrancis Beart Norton.
During the mid-1930s Florence lived in Sanderstead near Croydon in north east Surrey. In 1933 the idea of travelling overland to Cape Town was being discussed by Florence and Theresa. This is said to have been sparked by Florence’s wish to visit relatives in South Africa and a friend who had emigrated there. It might be thought that Blenkiron was a South African family name, but I cannot find it in lists of surnames for that country. The family name of Blenkiron derives from a Cumbrian village, which was, and still is, common in North Yorkshire and the North East, and has by now spread across the UK and overseas. Florence’s mother’s family name, Ainsley, is also common in the north of England. There are, however, Ainsleys in South Africa so maybe Florence had relatives on her mother’s side. If so, there is no mention of her visiting them on arrival in Cape Town. Whatever the motive for the trip, preparations began late in 1933.
Phelon and Moore Ltd of Cleckheaton, Yorkshire were persuaded to provide a suitable motorcycle combination – a Panther model 100 single cylinder 600cc especially suited for hauling a side-car – and Watsonian donated a side-car and trailer. Other commercial sponsors provided clothing, consumables and a tent to fit on top of the trailer. The combination was presented to Florence at the Jolly Farmers Inn in Surrey and given a hard ride over rough ground to see what might break. Apart from getting scratched and dirty, and the engine seizing briefly, the machine passed its first tough test. Once cleaned up they were ready to start and on December 11th 1934 the heavily laden ensemble, now called ‘The Venture’, received a grand send-off from the Crown House, Aldwych, London. Florence’s mother was in the crowd to see them off.
The adventure to Cape Town was recorded by Theresa in notebooks which she bequeathed to the library of the Arizona State University. Barry M Jones, author of the definitive book on P&M motorcycles, had been in contact with Theresa and obtained permission to edit her notes into a book, The Rugged Road. Jones added an introduction and summary of Teresa’s life after the ‘rugged road’. In the second edition he added more detail, including what little is known of Florence’s post-‘road’ life. Although it was Theresa who recorded the journey, Florence built up a collection of newspaper cuttings which were lodged in the archives of the Scott Abbott Agricultural Trust. From the following quotes it becomes clear that Florence was more than just Theresa’s companion; she did a lot of the organisation for the trip and obtained sponsorship from the Daily Sketch, to which she sent regular telegrams and letters reporting the journey. She also wrote to Motor Cycle magazine so it was more usually Florence who was quoted by the press. The Daily Sketch was exclusively reporting the trip and Florence sent telegrams to it along the way. It is not surprising that Florence is usually the first to be mentioned in any newspaper articles about the girls. In most of the newspaper photographs it is Florence who is astride the bike with Teresa in the side-car.
Florence on her Gold Star Day at Brooklands 14th April 1934
Theresa Wallach astride her Norton motorcycle, she was a dispatch rider during WW2
Florence after her race win at Brooklands 18th October 1933
Daily Mirror11th December 1934: ‘Two boyish young women motorcyclists, aged between 20 and 30, are embarking today on an adventurous tour from England to Capetown. “We cannot afford to buy petrol and powder and cigarettes ,so we prefer to buy petrol.”’
Daily Herald12th December 1934: ‘Two young women – Miss Florence M C Blenkiron and Miss Theresa E Wallach of Cleveland Road, Ealing – set out yesterday... [they] ...have had lessons in revolver shooting as a protection against wild animals and hostile tribesmen.’
Unknown newspaper: ‘They will be taking turns to ride on the saddle of the motorcycle and in the side-car attached.’
Unknown newspaper: ‘About a thousand typists saw a spot of real life as thrilling as any film in Aldwych today. Miss Blenkiron... is the only girl employee in the office of Sir Robert Hadfield and her employer has given her a year’s leave...’
Daily Sketch12th December 1934: ‘Miss Blenkiron said that as far as practicable they will make as near as possible a bee-line for Cape Town. “On the way we shall have to cross the Sahara. We are fully equipped, carrying food, petrol and revolvers in a trailer attached to our motorcycle combination, and we shall make our way across the desert. We know of the difficulties... our chief protection... is a revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition each.”
Daily Telegraph13th December 1934: ‘“It is the spirit of adventure that is urging us to do this” Miss Blenkiron stated “and there is also a desire to prove the superiority of a British product.”’
Uganda Herald16th January 1935 reporting on their departure from London said: ‘In a fortnight’s time, after having crossed the Sahara, they will be wearing shorts and topees... These two young women are attempting to do something which no man has as yet achieved.’
Theresa’s “The Rugged Road” describes in very matter-of-fact terms the epic journey, apart from some occasional reflective and poetic musings, and there is no need to repeat most of that here. Theresa hardly mentions ‘Blenk’ as she called Florence. (Theresa was, in turn, called ‘Wal’ by her travelling companion.) While Wal kept notes, both mental and on paper as well as photographs and cine film, Blenk appears not to have recorded anything.
Some idea of the privations they suffered can be gathered from this quotation from “The Rugged Road”: ‘Our log-book lost count of which day it was, or whether we slept or rode some nights...’ The Daily Sketch reported the girls’ progress and other papers published items taken from the Sketch.
Motor Cycle, date unknown: ‘Miss Blenkiron spent most of the time between their arrival (in Algiers) and the date of departure... in obtaining the necessary permits for crossing the Sahara,’
Daily Sketch22nd January 1935: ‘From InSalah... Miss Blenkiron writes to the Daily Sketch:“ In a vast wilderness, a hundred miles from the nearest human being... a side-car lug broke.”’
Motor Cycle, date unknown: ‘“As for our machine, it is standing up bravely to the very harsh treatment it has been necessary to give” runs a recent message from Miss Blenkiron from InSalah.’
Motor Cycle 7th March 1935, reporting on a letter from Miss Blenkiron in Agadez: ‘...they have been able to overhaul the outfit. The worst is over and Miss Blenkiron is confident that now there is no reason why they should not reach the Cape...’
Daily Sketch 16th April 1935: ‘They joined up with Miss Phil Paddon, the Devon girl who is motoring to Johannesburg, at Kano...’ ( Phil Paddon was undertaking an 1000 mile journey to survey a road race which was due to take place in 1936, the principal section was from Algiers to Johnnesburg)
An unknown newspaper referring to the lack of news after Fort Archambault said: ‘Mr Blenkiron (her father?)... was very anxious and was daily hoping for news.’
Uganda Herald 22nd May 1935: ‘Two weather tanned healthy young Amazons strolled into the Herald office yesterday morning... Unlike the modern girl, these girls would hardly be interviewed by the Herald but we did manage to understand that their health had been fairly good, although they had been in the most trying weather conditions. Their machine... is being overhauled voluntarily by the Uganda Coy, which needless to say is greatly appreciated by its fair passengers.’
In the desert a con-rod bearing failed and the engine soon ground to a halt. After considerable pushing and with help from locals with horses they reached an oasis where they were stranded for over a month waiting for spare parts to reach them from P&M in England.
By the time they reached Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) ‘The entire machine was now held together by nuts and bolts taken from wherever they could be spared. ... In addition to wire, string and rubber bands (cut from used inner tubes) we used our initiative – chewing gum was used to seal leaks in the fuel tank and water container.’
They arrived in Cape Town on 29th July 1935. Daily Sketch, date unknown: ‘On arrival in Johannesburg Theresa said “the fact we are girls does not handicap us one little bit. I do not see why more girls do not go in for trips like ours.”’ She stated their intention to cycle back again to London so at this stage she had intended to make the return journey.
It seemed as if the couple would return through Africa by a similar route to that used for the outward leg. A Motor Cycle magazine report said that Teresa had stated the ‘Venture’ to be in good shape despite the statement that ‘the original outfit had been practically written off in a crash with a car’!
However, while they awaited the arrival of a replacement from P&M Theresa was reported to be in poor health and she returned to England by sea. She told Barry Jones that she was not ‘medically ill’ but ‘emotionally drained’.
Florence named the replacement Panther and side-car ‘Venture II’. She tried to find a new partner, without success, so there was no need for the trailer when the requirements of one person could be carried in the side-car. The new bike must have been ordered before the ladies arrived in Cape Town and it seems that Florence had arranged this without Theresa’s knowledge. Florence left Cape Town alone on 18th September with the intention of retracing her steps through Africa and the Sahara Desert, destination London. Jones speculates that the women had fallen out once their epic journey was over, Theresa being upset by Florence’s relaxed attitude and not wishing to spend another period of many months with her when they now had nothing to prove. The return journey was not documented by Florence so there is no detail of the problems she must have encountered.
The press mentioned broken valve springs, punctures and the fracture of a chassis tube on the side-car. By January 1936 she had reached Kano, Nigeria from where she intended to strike out across the Sahara Desert, following the route used by the weekly buses. However, the authorities would not let her set out without a large amount of money in case she needed to be rescued. On the outward route the two ladies had great difficulty traversing large areas of soft sand and it is very doubtful whether Florence could have managed on her own, even without the trailer. Reluctantly she decided to abandon the solo journey and took the desert bus for the three-week journey to Algiers with the combination in tow, eventually arriving in London in April 1936.Her motorcycle was shown at the Selfridges store and several photographs appeared in the motor-cycling press, but no articles describing her homeward journey are available. Florence gave a lecture to the International Motorcyclist Touring Club in London in February 1937 but there is no published account of it, leaving us frustrated in not knowing any detail about what, for a woman on her own, must have been just as epic a journey as the outward trip by the two ladies. P&M and the other sponsors exploited the publicity surrounding Florence’s return and it seems likely that she gained personally. Theresa ,however, never heard anything or received any royalties from the various companies that had sponsored the journey. The two appeared never to have met or to have made contact with each other after Florence’s return to England.
The rest of Theresa’s life, mostly in America, is chronicled by Barry Jones in his appendix to “The Rugged Road”. He gathered from his correspondence with her that she was quite bitter about Florence, although she softened when she heard that her former companion had died.
Florence with the motorcycle and tent combo
Florence doing the paperwork whilst Theresa looks on
Farewell from the Mayoress of Bloemfontein July 1935
What Florence did next
What is known about Florence’s life after returning from the African adventure largely comes from a two-page typed document entitled ‘Mrs FM C Kingaby – Statement of Past Experience’ held in the archives of the Scott Abbott Trust. This document formed the basis of her obituary contributed to the Daily Telegraph by David Powell, manager of the farm where her husband had been accountant and where they lived for over 30 years. The obituary was, in turn, used as the major source of information for the Barry Jones appendix ‘Florence’s later years’ in “The Rugged Road”.
Here is what she wrote: “Several years on staff of Sir R Hadfield Bt (Chairman of Hadfields Ltd, Sheffield – steel manufacturers) at his private residence – Carlton House Terrace, London – as Secretary to his Technical Assistant. Duties comprised shorthand, typewriting (letters and technical reports), filing, graphs, interviewing clients in his absence etc. Oct 1934 – First woman to be awarded the Gold Star for lapping Brooklands at over 100mph on a motorcycle. Dec 1934 – Resigned at own request to undertake a journey from London to Cape Town and back on a motorcycle. First person to cross the Sahara Desert by the Hoggar Route with a motorcycle and side-car. Returned April 1936. June 1936 to Dec1938 – Ran tours with own Austin 18 all over the British Isles and Continent. During winter months chauffeuse-secretary. Jan 1939 – Left for Australia as companion-chauffeuse. Toured all over south east and northern Australia. Nov 1939 – Returned to England and joined the ATS on the 19th Dec. First with 2nd Echelon clerical section but later transferred to Army Pay Office, Finsbury Circus. Oct 1940 – Released from the ATS to join Mechanised Transport Corps leaving for Africa and Middle East with 56 ambulances. Corps responsible for collecting wounded coming from the desert to Cairo and transporting sick from MIrooms to hospital. Became Unit Fitter after passing trade test in Cairo. Corps later transferred to Alexandria after being absorbed into ATS on instructions of the British Govt. On duty there during the battle of El Alamin (sic).July 1941 – Posted to Palestine Girl Drivers Unit at Mena near Cairo to take charge of convoys of 8cwt to 10-ton trucks and armoured vehicles, all over Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Sept 1941 – Commissioned. May 1942 – Transferred to School of Military Driving and Maintenance opened at Mena. One of two officers responsible for testing drivers and teaching maintenance to ATS Palestine girls, Syrian men, British and other ranks, and all UNNRA personnel sent to Egypt for service on the continent, the latter having to pass a driving and maintenance course before being allowed to draw military vehicles. June 1945 – Mentioned in Despatches. April 1945 – In charge of 30 buses driven by Palestinian girls in Cairo for the transportation of Army Officers from place of residence to GHQ. Aug 1945 – Repatriated to India at own request to join the staff of the YWCA War Services Club in Calcutta. In charge of maintenance of very large compound and transport comprising eight trucks. May 1946 – Transferred to Bombay to take charge of YWCA War Services Club which later closed. June 1947 – My husband was released from the British Army in Bombay to take up a civilian appointment as General Manager of the Indian and Far Eastern Branch of a large American and British pharmaceutical company with its offices situated in Bombay. May 1955 – Left at his own request as we wished to take up farming in England. Unfortunately, in 1959 my husband had a coronary thrombosis and we had to give up our farm. He is now accountant on the late Mr W S Abbott’s estate at Thornhaugh. During our stay in Bombay the company purchased a large estate and derelict mill outside Bombay, for the purpose of manufacturing its own preparations in India, and for 18 months I was OC Renovations. My operations consisted of selling hundreds of tons of mill machinery of all descriptions, complete clearance and laying out of jungle around the premises, for which purpose I controlled a large gang of Indian labourers, and supervised the reconstruction work being carried out by the building contractors.’
Even without the Brooklands Gold Star and her ride to and from Cape Town, this is an incredible story!
Settling in Cambridgeshire
As mentioned above, Kenneth Kingaby had a heart attack in 1959 and they had to give up their farm in Somerset. He obtained the post of accountant on Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, owned by William Scott Abbott. Kenneth was almost certainly given the job by David Powell, Scott Abbott’s nephew, who was managing the estate during the owner’s long illness. Mr and Mrs Scott Abbott were childless and had already made plans for the farm to be put in trust. In 1964 the William Scott Abbott Trust was founded with the aims ‘to advance all forms of agricultural practices on the working farm and to provide educational facilities for the general public’. David Powell instigated a visitor centre on the farm in 1982 and this has formed the focus of subsequent developments, including a working mill and a variety of animals. Eventually the farm land was leased to other companies to allow the Trust to concentrate on its educational remit.
The Kingabys were provided with a bungalow, Windgate Way, in woodland on a quiet part of the farm, ‘built for them’ according to David Powell’s draft obituary of Florence. When Kenneth retired the couple continued to live in the cottage until Florence suffered a very bad stroke and eventually went into a nursing home, where she died on 4thMarch 1991. Kenneth stayed on his own until he also died, about a year after Florence. David Powell’s successor as estate manager, Mike Armitage, remembers the Kingabys as quiet and reserved. Even though they were neighbours, Mike says he never really got to know them. When he in turn retired he and his wife renovated Windgate Way and moved in.
In India with Florence holding the fish and her husband, Kenneth Kingaby, to the right
Florence on her way home, alone - 18th September 1935
Florence in her garden at Windgate Way
Theresa on the Norton 350 with which she won the Gold Star at Brooklands
Scott Abbott Trust
Lincoln, Rutford and Stamford Mercury